Also published on: Once A Guard, Now the Guarded – A Federal Corrections Officer’s Journey from Advocate to Victim
Dinner at our house was where I learned the word “President”. It is where Dad furiously ranted about something called Watergate and continued into fuming and venting about “thugs and crooks”. I was about four years old when those events happened, and I had no idea what a Watergate but, and Dad’s tone of voice made it clear that I should not ask.
Other things my father talked about during dinner every night were almost always related to his work. Ours was not a loud, abusive environment with an overstressed parent who took out his frustrations on his family, but the dinner table was a place where he sometimes released his tension.
He was well into a lifetime career as a federal corrections officer and after getting his feet wet at the prisons in Lompoc, California and Leavenworth, Kansas—both notorious for hosting the worst of the worst—he settled down at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, or as he referred to it, “the Joint”.
Red-faced and slamming the spoon into the dish that held the mashed potatoes, his knife and fork squealed across the plate as stew from the pot roast splashed onto his chest.
“This cock-eyed Watergate!” He was careful to not use curse words around us and made-up phrases that allowed him to adequately express his degree of disdain.
“What in the Sam hill were they thinking?” I didn’t know who Sam was, why he had a hill named after him, or how it was connected to what Dad was so mad about. Adding to my confusion, our beloved beagle/shepherd mix was named Sambo. I worried that Sam was going to take the blame for something that an innocent dog could not have done.
Dad wasn’t a heavy drinker, but he did frequently have a bit of red wine when he came home from work. We didn’t have the proper stemmed wine glasses, and the first time I saw one at Red Lobster, I thought, “Boy, this place is fancy! I wonder how we can afford to eat here.” To top it off, Dad left a few dollars on the table when we got up to leave. I recalled the scolding I got and the tears in Mom’s eyes when I lost a little purse with a five-dollar bill in it when we went to Texas to see my uncle. I grabbed the money and caught up with my parents at the door.
“Dad!” I cried out in panicked urgency. “You left this money on the table!” I was so proud to have prevented the loss of two precious dollars.
He grinned and took it from me and said, “Honey, that’s the tip for the waitress. You give the waitress a little money at places like this,” and he walked back to where we had been sitting and replaced the money. The next time we went to McDonald’s, I left a few pennies on the table.
Whether the absence of formal stemware was because we were not elegant entertainers or to downplay the consumption of alcohol, I can’t be sure. Instead, he drank from a small etched-glass jar that an olive and pimento cheese spread came in. When the last of the spread was smeared onto a slice of Wonder white bread, Mom threw away the metal lid and washed the jars until she had built a nice collection. They were just the right size for a drink of water before going to bed or to wash down a pill.
I loved purple grape juice, but we rarely had it at the house. I salivated when at church the communion tray of tiny shot glasses full of the delicious nectar bypassed me because I hadn’t been baptized yet. One day, I sneaked a sip of deep magenta liquid from a glass Dad had set down and reeled from its bitter horror. What I thought was a rare treat of church communion juice turned out to be from one of those bottles he bought at the Brown Derby liquor store. He always gave me the miniature plastic bull that dangled from a wire around the bottle’s neck. After tasting it, I wasn’t even interested in them anymore.
Sometimes Dad would pour his glass of wine and lie down on the couch without bothering to change out of his uniform, a sky blue short-sleeved button-down shirt, and charcoal gray pants. With the TV tuned to the news, he lay down, and soon his eyelids began to slowly lower, but not all the way shut. He looked like he was sleeping but sometimes I couldn’t tell for sure. Some of the whites of his eyes still showed like they were rolled back in his head and it didn’t look like he was alive, but not yet dead either.
If I dared to change the channel to watch Tennessee Tuxedo, he jolted awake and scolded me to change it back to the news. When I protested that I thought he had fallen asleep and was not watching, he asked me who paid the rent here. I didn’t know what rent was, but I knew the answer was not me, so by deductive reasoning, I concluded that if you don’t pay rent, you don’t change the channel to cartoons even if Dad looks like he’s dead and can’t possibly be watching the news.
One evening, Dad was anxiously pacing through the house. His expression was more intense than usual—this was more than a bad day at work or exhaustion from the routine of double shifts. I studied him as he stepped into the living room and took determined, heavy strides to the front door, stepped outside for a minute, then thundered back inside. He paraded past me and around the corner of the dining room and I heard his every step as he marched up to his and Mom’s upstairs bedroom.
“Momma, what’s wrong with Daddy?” I asked, stealing a moment when he was out of earshot.
“Nothing, Sweetheart. Daddy just may need to go away to work for a few days,” she said. “But he’ll be back, it will just be a few days.”
I didn’t understand why he would have to pack a suitcase and leave town. I knew where Dad worked– I often rode with Mom to take his lunchbox to him. That was usually when he was working in the guard tower at the end of the lane that led from Kansas Highway to the menacing brick prison building.
Working in the tower was a preferred shift and Dad was grateful when he got that assignment even if he did occasionally get bored. Tower duty was checking in visitors and employees as they came and went, and obviously, keeping watch for escape attempts. But the greatest advantage was that it was a respite from the brain-rattling clangs of the iron cell doors and the gut-wrenching—and often dangerous—proximity to the inmates.
Drawers creaked and slammed and his bootsteps announced that he was returning down the stairs. He was troubled, and so distracted that he didn’t notice me sitting on the couch as I watched him carry a small bag out the front door. I heard the door of his pickup truck slam shut and he came back inside.
The 5:30 national evening news was on TV, but he was too agitated to sit down. He glanced briefly at the images being broadcast. A large stone and brick building was on fire, and smoke billowed into the sky as the news helicopter hovered to film. Next to the burning building stood a tall, narrow structure that resembled Dad’s familiar guard tower. The anchor man’s voice was somber as he struggled, unscripted, to explain to the country what was happening. Dad’s worried expression deepened before he turned away.
The black anvil-like rotary dial telephone rang, its clangor amplified by the mahogany cabinet it sat upon. Mom later thought to put a folded towel under it in a futile attempt to soften the earsplitting peal so that it wouldn’t wake Dad when he was sleeping after a night shift. Dad stomped to the dining room and picked it up.
“Yeah. Yeah. Uh-huh. Okay.”
The conversation was short and cryptic. Dad hung up and continued to pace back and forth through the house and out to the truck and back. Several more calls rattled the evening, and the last one before my bedtime seemed to calm him. A palpable sigh rushed through the house and out through the doors and windows.
Dad was still staring at the floor as he hung up the receiver. He looked up at me…then to Mom…and the color of his face changed as his scowling frown relaxed.
“We’re not going,” he said.
They stood staring at each other. Their shoulders fell, their bodies released the fear and sense of foreboding that had overtaken them during those hours that evening.
We didn’t talk about what happened or nearly happened. I don’t remember how I learned that Dad and some of the other guards from The Joint were perilously close to being sent to Pontiac, Illinois, to help contain a riot. It was considered the most dangerous prison in the system. Three correctional officers had been murdered, and fires started in a violent, well-planned attack that involved hundreds of inmates. The facility’s staff was completely overwhelmed. The siege finally ended when state troopers and local police armed with shotguns and teargas were brought in.
A few years later, on October 22, 1983, two Aryan Brotherhood gang members murdered a couple of guards at the prison in Marion, Illinois. According to court documents (Silverstein v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, No. 12-1450,10th Cir. 2014), as Officer Merle Clutts and two other guards escorted Thomas Silverstein back to his cell after a shower, the convicted murderer walked behind Clutts. He paused at a cell and put his cuffed hands through the bars, where another inmate quickly unlocked the handcuffs and handed over a large shank—a rudimentary knife. He charged at Clutts, shouting declaration of a personal vendetta against his keeper—he had accused Clutts of intercepting his mail, destroying his artwork, and other offenses—and stabbed him forty times.
Documents from the court proceedings (United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v. Clayton Fountain, Thomas E. Silverstein, and Randy K. Gometz, Defendants-Appellants) state that after the killing, Silverstein paced the prison corridor pronouncing to all the other inmates and responding guards, “this is no cop thing. This is a personal thing between me and Clutts. The man disrespected me, and I had to get him for it.”
Later that day and in a different area of the prison, Clayton Fountain staged a second attack that mirrored that of Silverstein’s—with assistance from other convicts to unlock his handcuffs, overtake his escorts, and supplied with a shank. Officer Robert Hoffman died in the arms of his own son, who was also a guard at the prison. Two other guards were injured in the assault. One was left permanently disabled and the other’s injuries were minor.
Various accounts allege that Fountain’s reason for attacking the guards was that he did not want Silverstein to have more murders to his credit than he did. One guard testified that he also overheard Fountain say to another inmate that “it would have been fun” for him to have killed Hoffman’s son also.
These horrendous attacks led to extraordinary measures to contain the country’s most violent convicts. A few days after Clutts and Hoffman were killed, the penitentiary at Marion, the replacement for Alcatraz, went into lockdown. The Aryan Brotherhood inmates had savagely killed two of the guards’ brothers and it was time for pay-back.
While most of the convicts were already held one to a cell, their lifestyles were completely redefined. The complacency that allowed Fountain and Silverstein to coordinate with other inmates and murder two guards ended with absolute and unquestionable clarity. The twelve to fourteen hours a day that an inmate would typically spend outside of his cell was reduced to an hour and a half. Socializing was all but terminated. For all but ninety minutes a day, the most violent, demented convicts in the country were caged in tiny cells that held only a sink, a toilet, and a concrete bench for a bed.
According to a 2013 interview of a former Marion Correctional Officer by Slate journalist Justin Peters, up to possibly 50 inmates bore ferocious beatings at the hands of guards “exacting a measure of revenge”. (How a 1983 Murder Created America’s Terrible Supermax-Prison Culture, by Justin Peters, October 23, 2013)
The new policies alarmed advocacy groups who scrutinized them as beyond the pale of humane and fair, even for a maximum-security prison. Inmates claimed that the stricter conditions exacerbated mental health decline and therefore caused irreparable damage that crushed any degree of rehabilitation.
Silverstein was sent to Atlanta’s prison but was deemed a threat there following a scuttle in which Cuban detainees facilitated his release from solitary. He was then sent to the new prison built in Florence, Colorado, the max of the max for the worst of the worst.
Fountain was sent to the MCFP, where Dad worked. Depending on which old news article or crime blog you read, he or Silverstein were alternately considered the most dangerous convicts in the country. In Springfield, Fountain lived the rest of his life in a cell that was custom built (Special Housing Unit) for him to accommodate extreme isolation and supervision. Select staffers were specifically trained to oversee him and his liberties were austere. Showers were limited to several times a week and he was only allowed out of his cell for an hour and a half each day, and three guards were required for his movement. Meals were slipped into his cell through a shallow opening in the bars near the floor.
The lay criminal-mind hobbyist may not be familiar with the name Clayton Fountain, but prison personnel and fellow inmates, once their paths crossed, would never forget him. His crimes were heinous, and the spree began when he was only 19. As his victims were fellow correctional officers—who should have never been so vulnerable to him—special disdain and fear were levied on him. Even with his restrictive quarters and handling protocol, occasional reminders were shared with the staff to never underestimate his ability to outthink and overpower them.
Almost a year to the day after the Marion murders, on October 16, 1984, a memorandum was sent out to all the corrections officers working on the ward that held Fountain’s cell. It was a dire warning from the warden who, in conjunction with a mental health case manager, feared that if past behavior was prescient, Fountain’s pattern of violence was ripe for re-eruption. Attached to it was a two-and-a-half-page narrative recounting his criminal history, written by J.R. Linton, Case Manager on the Mental Health Unit. It was dated December 7, 1983, so it was likely the intake brief compiled upon Fountain’s transfer to the MCFP. Dad sent me a copy sometime after he retired and started writing about some of his time at the Bureau of Prisons.
J. H. Hayden wrote:
Dating back to 1974, Fountain has been directly involved in a murder or brutal assault of another person. This has occurred on an annual, or nearly so, basis. As you are all aware, it will be one year, at the end of this month, since he murdered one Correctional Office(sic) and seriously assaulted two (2) other Officers at the United States Penitentiary, Marion. His history clearly indicates that he is due to attempt another assault, even another murder if he gets the slightest opportunity. I also want you to know that Fountain is increasingly making comments and references, in his correspondence, to the effect that he considers himself a “warrior”, believes that he will go t a “warrior Valhalla” when he dies, and has also stated that he is a “cold-blooded killing machine”. He has also indicated that he will fight when he has the “element of surprise” and the situation is “on his ground” or to his advantage. He refers to US as the Enemy.
The bottom line is this:
His past record indicates that he is due for a violent outburst.
He is obviously psyching himself up for it.
He is very capable of doing great physical damage.
He will maim, cripple, KILL YOU if he gets the slightest opportunity.
Fountain came to Springfield around the time that I was in eighth grade. Dad, with twenty years in the Bureau under his belt and counting down to retirement, worked a lot of night shifts to reduce his interaction with the most dangerous individuals in our society. He was just getting home in the morning as I was leaving for school, and often napped in the evening before going to work. He also frequently worked double shifts from 4 PM until 8 AM, which exposed him to more inmate activity but limited duty with administrators around, and he liked to stay under the radar of “the brass”. There were weeks when I wondered if he even still lived with us.